Smart TV or Streaming Player?

21 November 2021

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday around the corner, you might be thinking it’s time to replace or upgrade your flat panel TV. Debbie and I recently replaced a smart TV but it was due to a display failure unfortunately. If you are planning to buy a new TV, do you go with the built-in smart TV or are you a streaming player fan? I touched on this in a previous post.

Both approaches have their pros and cons. You might get better performance and broader app support from an external streaming player, but your smart TV’s software might offer features that you can’t get by plugging in a Fire TV Stick or Roku. If you’re confused about which to buy, don’t be surprised, there are so many options it’ll make your head spin.

I’m a smart TV fan as I like to keep my solutioning simple. But it’s really all about personal preference and what your entertainment goals are. I’d recommend before you buy a separate streaming player, give your smart TV software a shot. Now, in full disclosure, I do have Fire TV Cubes connected to all of my TVs. I like the voice control and the other Amazon Alexa automations the platform affords. But you may not need an additional streaming device if your TV meets the following criteria:

  • It has all the streaming video and music apps you enjoy
  • It’s not slow to operate
  • You like the remote control and menu system

One of the things I’ve noticed about our smart TVs is they tend to offer fewer apps compared to streaming players Roku and Fire TV. But I’m OK with that, especially considering the crazy variety of options out there. It’s like the hundreds of channels we’ve had with cable TV that we never watched.

I’ve standardized on Samsung smart TVs in our home as I also have SmartThings integrated into our smart home plan. I’m anticipating that at some point SmartThings will integrate more with the TVs like they have with Samsung appliances.

Other major TV brands, such as LG and Vizio, have the same type of apps. Samsung and LG are still hardware vendors at heart though, so it may be no surprise that long-term software support isn’t a major priority. Neither company releases major version upgrades on older TVs, so whatever version you get is the one you’re stuck with, and both companies left pre-2018 TVs behind when adding Apple AirPlay 2 to their televisions in 2019.

The practice of abandoning older TVs has put a damper on app support. Paramount+ and HBO Max, for instance, only work on LG TVs from 2018 onward. Discovery+ and Peacock both require LG and Samsung TVs from 2017 onward. And for Apple TV+, you need a Samsung TV from at least 2017. All of which means that you may need to buy a separate streaming player just to keep your TV experience current depending on the TV you own.

Smart TVs can also be more privacy-invasive than some streaming devices, particularly if you don’t disable their content recognition systems that track what you watch. And they might use slower processors that drag down responsiveness and load times — another reason why I prefer to connect my TVs to my Ethernet network versus using wifi.

But not every smart TV suffers from these problems. If you buy a TV with Fire TV Stick, Roku, or Android TV software built in, you’ll get the same apps and features as their streaming player counterparts. And the more you spend on a smart TV, the more likely its processor will be plenty fast.

Smart TVs also have several advantages over standalone streaming devices. One of those advantages is simpler HDR setup. While traditional TVs world don’t support 4K HDR video, streaming services such Netflix and Amazon Prime have offered those formats for years, letting you watch higher-resolution video with richer color detail. They’ve also been steadily adding support for Dolby Atmos, an object-based form of surround sound that adds audio height cues to movie and TV show soundtracks. All of this means you can replicate more aspects of the movie theater experience at home.

If your TV supports Dolby Vision, HDR10 or HDR10+, your smart TV apps will support those formats automatically. You don’t need to worry about buying a compatible streaming player, or figuring out which HDMI input offers the best video quality. Using the smart TV software also frees up your HDMI inputs for gaming consoles, Blu-ray players or HDMI-ARC soundbars.

Many Samsung and LG TVs come with detailed channel guides for over-the-air antennas, I’ve covered over-the-air antennas in detail before. TVs running Roku, Fire TV and Android TV software also have detailed channel guides. That means you don’t need to switch remotes or set up a networked tuner just to watch your local channels.

Some Android TV and Fire TV Edition televisions, including Amazon’s new Omni TVs, have far-field microphones built-in, so you can launch videos, control playback, adjust the volume, or switch inputs without touching the remote. Having the mic built right into your TV is simpler than setting up a Fire TV Cube or trying to pair an external smart speaker to your streaming player.

If you’re using Roku TV with a Roku soundbar, wireless speakers or TCL’s Roku-ready wireless soundbar, you get the ability to control audio settings through your TV’s remote. That means you won’t need a separate remote just to adjust the bass or toggle Roku’s dialog boost feature. I don’t know about you but the least number of remotes the better as far as I’m concerned.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, there are many reasons to switch to a separate streaming player — your smart TV’s software is slow, out of date or lacking in app support. But there are also a few other reasons why you might want to steer toward a separate streaming player versus smart TV functionality.

Since Apple doesn’t make smart TVs, a separate Apple TV box is the only way to get the most powerful streaming device on the market today. Likewise, the Nvidia Shield TV has no equal if you want an Android TV player with the best possible performance.

Depending on your TV and the strength of its software, you might end up wanting the features of external streaming players. Roku offers an excellent mobile app with private headphone listening and a ‘Save List’ for tracking your shows. Fire TV offers a live TV guide that aggregates multiple video sources into one menu. If you have a Samsung, LG or Vizio TV, those kinds of features may be worth switching for.

If all of your TVs run on different software you can unify them through external streaming players. That way, you get a consistent experience across all of your televisions. Even though all of our TVs are Samsung, we’ve standardized on Fire TV Cube. This gives us a standard set of voice commands to use on all the TVs in the house. Some streaming platforms, such as Fire TV and Google TV, even offer watchlists that sync across all your devices and can play multi-room audio on several TVs at once.

Obviously there are many ways to approach solutioning for TV content. It really boils down to your entertainment preferences are, what your technology roadmap looks like, the equipment you have and budget. Regardless, you don’t need to rush into any decision or toss out your TV if its software isn’t up to your expectations. But if you are ready to replace your smart TV software, you’ll find plenty of streaming players that will get the job done. And with all the Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other big sales over the next couple weeks, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to pick up some pretty neat stuff. I’ve already gotten started. I bought some smart lightstrips to experiment with for cove lighting, under/over cabinet, and to see if there are other applications in our new home.

What are your thoughts? Are you looking for a new way to bring entertainment options into your home? If you’re using any of the options I’ve covered here, how are they working for you — working well? Not so good? Let us know what you think as we love hearing from you — comment, DM or email. Until next week …

In full disclosure, I’m not an affiliate marketer with links to any online retailer on my website. When people read what I’ve written about a particular product and then click on those links and buy something from the retailer, I earn nothing from the retailer. The links are strictly a convenience for my readers.

Seasoned professional sports information technology executive with a passion for out of the box solutions to complex challenges.